Being Vulnerable Triggers Growth with Thomas Donohoe at Level Agency

Vulnerability is often seen as a weakness. When it comes to leadership vulnerability, it is a strength. Those that dare to have leadership vulnerability will say I don’t know the answer. They will share from their heart. My guest today is Thomas Donohoe, founder of Level Agency. Level Agency ranked #190 on the 2014 Inc List. Thomas shared his challenges with leadership vulnerability during the interview. Being a great leader requires that you build trust. Trust requires authenticity. Join us today as we explore leadership vulnerability.

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Thomas Donohoe: The Transcript

Target Audience: Thomas J. Donohoe is the author of The CEO’s Digital Marketing Playbook, as well as founder and CEO of Level Agency, a leader in direct-response digital advertising and customer generation for domestic and international B2B and high-value B2C verticals.

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Disclaimer: This transcript was created using YouTube’s translator tool and that may mean that some of the words, grammar, and typos come from a misinterpretation of the video.

Gene Hammett: [00:01]
Hi Thomas, how are you?

Thomas Donohue: [00:03]
Doing well, how are you doing?

Gene Hammett: [00:04]
I am fantastic. Happy to have you here at the growth think tank when I let our audience know a  little bit about the company. I really kind of neglected to tell them the details. I would love for you to share with us about your company and who you serve.

Thomas Donohue: [00:19]
Sure. As of 2019, we’ve got about 70, 75 full-time employees. We are primarily a digital marketing agency focused exclusively on customer generation. We serve a lot of the B2B and what we call high-value B to c markets, so goods and services and product lines that are pretty expensive. Anything that or any company where there was a, a bit of a sales cycle. So things in terms of commerce or math or compete to see, we still have a few clients, but anytime there’s a longish gestation period between lead or click to a website and then eventually a sale. That’s the type of marketing process and sales process that we do pretty well with.

Gene Hammett: [01:03]
Well, we’d all like to have the kind of business where we can sell high ticket items and that timeframe is very fast. Reality is we all take our time. We research, we do discover we want to make sure we’re making the right decision. And so you help them with a set of the kind of content and campaigns around that whole process. Is that right?

Thomas Donohue: [01:25]
Yup. Everything from directed all advertising direct response advertising to build the top of the funnel to drive targeted prospective customers to web environments, landing pages, websites, and then try to help those prospective customers turn into an inquiry or a lead or some kind of engagement with our clients and then try to partner with the sales team and use digital advertising, the same channels, search engines, and social networks and display advertising, help that a prospective customer becomes an actual customer or client of our client customers. So yeah, the full sales cycle. Um, a few years ago it was more about just building the top of the funnel dollars out to leads and inquiries in. And now it’s much more a full stack from a customer journey standpoint, which is pretty exciting.

Gene Hammett: [02:13]
Well, I am smiling over here because I, you know, one of the big disconnects in B2B world because I work a lot with that and clients are in that area, is there’s no alignment between what happens in the marketing strategies with what’s going on in this trails sales strategies. Sounds like your company kind of fits in that middle and end. Is that bridge between the two?

Thomas Donohue: [02:35]
Yeah. That’s funny. I just did a, a segment on linkedin about this. So not even that long ago, I’m thinking three, four, five years ago there was not just a disconnect, but there was a natural break between 21st century digital advertising or in marketing and advertising and that team and most sales teams in B2B or high-value B to see, in terms of there was almost a, the baton was passed off and that’s mostly going on since mark pitting in sales and work together for hundreds of years, thousands of years. When you’ve started to see specifically social network works. But I think Google’s getting into the moving up funnel game, specifically social networks have been, have become engines, not just for reaching out, casting a wider net reaching perspective, customers the days and weeks and maybe even months or that your company, you’re a pro on in there, which is you know, bottom of the funnel so to speak, which is kicking up funnel and be able to find your customer first before they know that you’re there.

Thomas Donohue: [03:45]
They know that they’re your customers. They can also go down the funnel beyond the inquiry and closer to the actual sale. Anytime that you can target somebody or prospective customer on a one to one basis, the actual human or humans. Um, anytime again, this is Facebook, Instagram, and linkedin primarily anytime that you can identify the actual human and, uh, without selling to big brothers respectfully follow them as they are engaging with your sales team. As digital marketers like myself have been able to use those same type of funnel add and kind of funnel. Um, that’s been pretty exciting. So yeah, that disconnect between marketing hands, the lead up to sales, then sales does their thing that is appropriate. That line is being blurred. And I think it’s been appropriately driven by the marketing team saying, look, here’s that.

Thomas Donohue: [04:47]
Here’s a good value that we can provide. And maybe even some, some ownership of the eventual sale. And I know marketers love to blame sales. I know sales loves to blame marketers, but I think I’m using the more advanced features primarily within social networks is helping those two very different silos and teams kind of play a little more nicely together.

Gene Hammett: [05:09]
Well, I want to get some context of what you’re doing and before we dive into this because I think it really helps our audience understand that you have a business that has a certain level of complexity. It also has the changing tides of technology. It has new strategies that used to work that don’t work. They really are changing very quickly. So you’ve got to have a workforce that really is able to see these things, be smart about it, make smart decisions and work autonomously through this. Am I correct in saying that?

Thomas Donohue: [05:46]
Yeah, it’s less about the autonomy. It’s more about for profitable. Yes. If our advertising professionals, technology professionals, if are the men and that are working with clients on their strategy, the men and women that are, that are working within the advertising channels, the platforms themselves, the men and women that are on the creative end that are writing the words and of the videos and things like that. If, if they don’t help me and my executive team become aware of this month, Facebook or Instagram just changed or offered or limited targeting feature. If salesforce just bought this company and I, that might mean that that company might offer new things in six months. So maybe we should be partnering with them now. So when they release Beta is we have access to it. The things that are, that the difference between our line digital campaign and I’m pretty good Roi in a successful campaign that the margin for error or rather than the nuances and the differences between like basically a complete mess where our clients are like, man, that’s definitely not working.

Thomas Donohue: [06:59]
I want you to shut down the whole thing and hey, that’s a pretty good ROI, so let’s spend more money. The nuances and the differences in that camp, the bad campaign versus a good one on the same ad platform is really, really thin. So like 10 years ago you had to be pretty good at search engine marketing and then maybe drive people to your homepage, not just in search engines, but social networks, in particular, cause things to change so much. Um, if you are not genuinely up to speed as an agency, um, in terms of what’s happening this month it’s pretty absurd how quickly you can get left behind because a few agencies in a few, maybe in house teams, they’ll pick it up, they’ll get access to Betas and the ad platforms. And Google’s a little better than most, but bing and Facebook and Instagram and Linkedin, they’re okay, but they’re not going to be screaming from the rooftops that they just changed something.

Thomas Donohue: [07:58]
That’s where there they are or aren’t going to offer a new beta. You know, I think it was a little better, but no one’s perfect. And these ad platforms aren’t, you know, aren’t they don’t have, they don’t have megaphones and like the bat phone to every agent saying, hey guys, you know, it’s, it’s the first of the month we just rolled out this new stuff. You’ve got to try it. Our employees are, I’m going to say at least half of them, they sounded like they share the burden, but we hear, I hear and we execute new campaigns at least half the time based on what my coworkers, my police are feeding me from a thing they just read about. Or they tried because they just, you know, they’re using Facebook ads and every day they’re noticing something that they think changed and then even hear about it from the resume. So that pipeline of like near real-time movements and the ad technology space that has real, generally real impact and you’re only going to get it if you’ve got your people with their ear to the ground. And other sounds crazy because again, we’re living in a hyper-informed age and certainly you think these ad channels are, you know, their responsibilities are to tell agencies like mine what the best new stuff is. But you know, it’s not a perfect world. It doesn’t work like that.

Gene Hammett: [09:21]
Well, I appreciate you giving us the context of this cause I think we have a lot of respect for this cause I know I do. But I want to focus in, turn the direction back to you because in order to have the kind of team that is able to be as nimble and fast, you have to be a special kind of leader. And I’ve talked to you a little bit before, you’ve made some transition in your leadership style over the years. Let’s go back to the time when you weren’t as effective as you could have been. That’s a nice way of saying it. Right.

Thomas Donohue: [09:55]
Very good. That’s a very diplomatic way.

Gene Hammett: [09:57]
So again, let’s work, let’s go back there and just say, you know, what did it look like? We are leadership style.

Thomas Donohue: [10:04]
Yes. Well, I mean there are two. There are two big pivot points, but from a leadership style standpoint, I was, I am not organically predisposed to be a leader of troops with a disposition that nourishes and feeds and inspires people. That report to me. I’ve had to learn less through an inmate, you know the pedigree and absolutely learn more from, I mean flat out, not just mistakes, but having people leave. You don’t want to leave. Having very having to listen the open to and hearing and receiving an actually digesting versus, you know, paying lip service and just kind of like one ear out the other in terms of not great feedback from subordinates.

Thomas Donohue: [11:09]
You know, in terms of how, you know, I think I’m better today as a business owner, as an executive than I was two years ago and certainly better than I was five 10 years ago. I started the company around nine years ago. And that, that path has been mostly giant landmines blowing up in my face versus like, oh, I read this awesome book and it inspired me, or yeah, I got this playbook from my MBA program and I had three mentors and you know, the lights shone, shone down through the clouds on me. It was mostly my manufacturing of certain landmines and those blown up in my face. And I could either choose to pay attention to the, to the fallout and take some ownership of it or maybe, you know, plat pass the buck and place blame elsewhere.

Thomas Donohue: [12:08]
And the one thing I’m okay with eventually is I’m okay accepting blame. You know, I’m a farm kid from Pennsylvania, so it’s not like I had a gun, a pedigree for this. So at the end of the day, I want to be successful, want to do good work when I make money. You know, if you focus on, as I focused on, like what’s like, what’s the, what’s the outcome you want? What’s the business outcome, if that requires, that required me, suck it up. And, uh, accepting responsibility, soup to nuts for things not going right culturally. Well, you know, that’s what it had to take.

Gene Hammett: [12:47]
You mentioned a couple of inflection points and we don’t have to get into the gory details, but what can you share with us about, about one of those major inflection points of…

Thomas Donohue: [12:57]
I mean, it’s business. It’s not that glory, but you know, but it’s, from a business standpoint, it’s almost as gory as you get for, you know, we didn’t go out of business, but there were some pretty rough times, you know, the first inflection point, I think, by the way, that’s the really nice, it’s a wonderful mark that’s a marketed phrase for like something really bad happened and you had to do any serious, right?

Thomas Donohue: [13:23]
So inflection points instead of poetic, right. The first inflection point. Yeah, I’ve had this feeling and thought and this conversation for awhile I am fascinated and I fell into this trap. So I’m going to say a thing that I think is insanely dumb. And I fell into this rep. Men and women entrepreneurs, less like the sole proprietor is in the second, third generation. But a lot of entrepreneurs, and I’m not saying this is all like a California silicon valley thing, but I’m fascinated how many people, myself included, think that because they have a really awesome idea in the business world and they build that thing and a minimum viable product and they go to market that like people are gonna throw money at you. And I know that sounds some people like, oh, you know, hey Tom. So you’re saying you should have some customers and worry about revenue.

Thomas Donohue: [14:23]
That’s of course, that’s, of course, you should. That’s stupid. And I think you would be I think if you really dig into a lot of business plans, a lot of startups, and I can say this because I did this as well my first six months, the first iteration of my company, the thing I offered the market to try and make money with, it was an awesome idea. But no one’s gonna, no one was buying it. So the first six, I built the thing deployed Max the credit cards remortgaged my house might, it might actually use some student loan money. I’m a proud dropout of a Carnegie Mellon’s MBA program might use some still on the money. I mean, I went all in, built this thing, showed it to the marketplace, was super proud because it was awesome and nobody bought it.

Thomas Donohue: [15:12]
No one was spending money. It’s a great idea, but no one’s buying it. And you know, I, so the, within 45 days I had to pivot the revenue model, use a similar infrastructure and content and the thing that I was trying to sell and had a pivot significantly in terms of I packaged it and the what the outcome was in terms of the marketing product that was selling. But I think the important thing is like, hey, I shouldn’t have done in the first place. I should have identified what people wanted to spend money on. Don’t actually some research number to actually identify one or two or three on a service business. So I’m B2B, not B to C So I should have identified two or three actual clients and had verbal kid and it’s for them to actually spend money. When I, when I opened up shop, when I had a product to sell instead of that, I built this, I built this awesome thing that was really shiny and pretty awesome, but no one was buying it.

Thomas Donohue: [16:09]
You know, I did take meetings all day long. I had 30 35 40 sales calls there were crazy productive. But at the end of day, there were no contracts signed. There was no revenue. So I had to pivot. And I think you’d be surprised that, that, that fascination with one’s own idea versus the really, really boring thing of where is their money on the table and actually identify a handful of people that are like, no, I’ll definitely spend money on this thing. So go build it. You know, I think we’re, I think we’re not reverse engineering that way. And at the end of day, if you’re not making money, I think the fascination with the Unicorns, the world, you know, the Uber’s, you know, Uber’s worth $50 billion as of last week. It’s never made a profit. Like we’re not that lucky. We have to make a profit. And, so I think that was the one inflection point.

Thomas Donohue: [16:57]
I was lucky that I, my initial pivot was based on, oh my goodness, I’m screwed. I’ve listened to what people are going to spend money on. I’m going to retool this and, and reissue my marketing service as that thing. And then low and behold, within 45 days, I had signed contracts and revenue. So like I was lucky that I was able to pivot to a thing in terms of the original proof of concept and product. And it was close enough to what people would spend money on. But if you’re not focused on this and if I did do it over again, you got to pay attention to like not worry the dollars are, but identify actual clients and get verbal commitments. He goes far down funnel as you can to close before you know, remortgage your house. So that was the first thing.

Thomas Donohue: [17:47]
And the second thing was very purely, purely me, not the marketplace, not competitors. I mean it was 100% my management style, my personality, my behavior is a, as a business owner and you know. I’ll keep it simple. If you hire, if you’re lucky enough to hire amazing human beings, if you’re lucky enough to find a nine and a half or 10 out of 10, you hire that person and then get the hell out of their way. And I think for CEO’s, for me it was really easy to give people job titles and give people responsibilities. And it was easier to when I felt like it starts doing their job when I felt like it. I’m not really micromanaging, but not exactly saying, you know what, president of the company, director, vice president, this is your job. I trust, I have hired to do that thing and I think you’re Amazing.

Thomas Donohue: [18:50]
Go do that. And it wasn’t just micromanaging, it was, it was, you know, giving that thought leadership and that emotional space to them to have ownership to quarterback meetings, to be the person in the room. So if I’m in a room, my job is to not be the loudest, most important person in the room to make all the decisions. And at least for me, in my experience, it took me a lot of years to learn that. And I know that sounds simple like of course, it’s the person who’s running the meeting. But I tell you what when you know, you’re the, I mean, I’m in my case, I’m the I’ve hopefully of competence compensated some people from a, um, uh, their comp model I think is pretty good. And some phantom stock in terms of from a shareholder standpoint and on the shareholder, on the CEO, you know, at the end of the day, it’s really, I found for me it was really easy to, you know, when I felt like it, I would let them do their jobs and if I were them and they’re that good, that’s a crappy way, that’s a crappy job to have, certainly at an executive level.

Thomas Donohue: [19:56]
So I know it sounds simple, the, you know, if you’re lucky enough to find rock stars, you know, get the heck out of their way. And I think in certain entrepreneurial startup environments where there’s one person that is the majority shareholder or the CEO, you know, here she has to, it’s more than just like, here’s a job title. Like it, it’s the absolute E, you know, piece of your ego that you got either give to them or just putting a box and you know, just, it has nothing to do with the success of your business. It’s definitely working directly against the health of a culture and that’s my experience. But I don’t think that’s, I would guess it’s not urban experience.

Gene Hammett: [20:40]
Well, I want to dive into this just a little bit because this is really interesting. Um, we all know as leaders that micro isn’t a good thing, right? No one knows. No one goes into telling people how to do their marketing job or sales job. Um, I guess a little bit that happens when you’ve been there before, you’d probably have a big marketing and sales background, so it’s very for you to tell, but where you are today, when you hire someone on, you know, has the capacity to do it, they need a little bit more. Maybe it’s confidence or courage. How do you bring that out in others without stepping on the toes, toes and micromanaging?

Thomas Donohue: [21:26]
Man, let me kind of, to allow those behaviors to cut in. I just manifest but kind of grow.

Gene Hammett: [21:33]

Thomas Donohue: [21:35]
I’ll approach it in two ways. I’ll do like the operational, philosophy and I’ll do the, I’ll do the, even more, emotional thing. But let me do, let me get the ops side of the way. At a senior level, again, if you’re, if you feel you found some rock stars, you know, I do the trust out of the gate and if there is a little bit of smoke that’s fine. But if there’s enough smoke, there might be a fire you got to from trust to trust, but verify then if there’s a little more or smoke if there are some conversations from others because you have to trust the whole team. It’s not just about the individual, it’s about being able to, I think like an executive, certainly as the CEO tries to understand it’s a living, breathing egos. So try to take a lot of data points and conversation points and if that there’s even more smoke or if you’re feeling a little more reticent about certain positions.

Thomas Donohue: [22:33]
And again, if, cause if you’re going to fail, you want to feel quick, you want to give people know enough of a runway then you go from a trust to trust but verify to, you know, be firm, but fair kind of thing. And I think those like three levels of, if you’re going to operationalize how you, how you treat an executive person you’ve brought on, you think it’s that waterfall of, you know, if you brought them on in here, there’s certainly there are six-figure rock star, you know, you gotta you just gotta Trust you’ve made a decision trust. And if there was any smoke, you do the trust, but verify and then, and then if you’re really feeling that there’s a possibility that you could have been wrong, that you made maybe not a great hiring decision if it’s not a good match, you know, the firm, but fair approach.

Thomas Donohue: [23:17]
But at some point, Yeah, there have to cultivate or understand it’s not a good alignment. So don’t let things in metastasized. So that’s like the operational way I would’ve, I approach it. That, I think the president that I work with, uh, my company, how how he, Operationalizes and makes the l lets that manifest in terms of his direct reports from a, a personality trait and not just like as a CEO, but I think any executives, man, I’m a huge fan of, and this is not for everybody. I’m a huge fan of like vulnerability as a not like inward thing, but both in inward, in an overt external employee-facing thing. That vulnerability and not just the honesty but like vulnerability is not weakness, which is not wishy washiness. It’s, you know, being really okay openly discussing to a certain point when things aren’t going well.

Thomas Donohue: [24:32]
If there were things that, and certainly if it’s not just a bad hire I CO and engagement, again, I’m talking from a B Two B services standpoint, but this could, this is B to C, this is high value. Do you see this as econ? This is B two B. This is like the product law and hasn’t worked. If there is, you’re the court of public opinion or the press are hitting you from a certain angle. That is the time to be really, really direct and really vulnerable internally and trying to be cagey or trying to do like the poor man’s version of all our ability, which is just like being soft and wishy-washy. Like that’s not vulnerability. Vulnerability is tough and it sucks because at some point it’s like, it’s like work, it’s taking ownership, but like the rubber hitting the road, like I said, like, oh, I own the results.

Thomas Donohue: [25:25]
You own the results and it’s easy when you’re, everyone’s making money in and everyone’s sitting home runs, you know, taking ownership on things are going not well. That’s when a vulnerability is like, that’s the litmus test for ownership to me. So again, vulnerability as like, I guess a behavioral trait from an executive standpoint would be, you know, that emotive thing that, that can to your question kind of help the cultural tide that raises most ships is what I would say.

Gene Hammett: [25:59]
I don’t know what generation this is, but I think us older people, you’re younger than I am, but we really want to have this strong way of being in the world. We want to know that we have decisions. And as a leader, it’s natural to see vulnerability as a weakness. But my perspective is that’s bullshit because real strength comes from that vulnerability of having the direct conversation, having real talks about their confidence, level, their fears, and allowing them to see a different side of themselves or the situation that you don’t get by any other way than just really vulnerable.

Thomas Donohue: [26:49]
Well, there’s two things. One is vulnerability is not lack of ideas and it’s not indecisiveness. Vulnerability is the aftermath, right? You gotta be, I mean, if, if you’re indecisive as an executive, if you don’t have for 97 out of a hundred times when things happen, you don’t have a playbook, let’s bad. You know, I think people still respond to you know, not everyone’s like General Patton, but like have a playbook. You better in your business, be able to solve most problems or at least have an idea, a plate of a run. When you’re, you encounter something that’s not good, you have to be decisive. So, I think his leadership in terms of vulnerability, after you make a decision after a thing happens, how do you deal with it? You know, so it’s not vulnerability.

Thomas Donohue: [27:45]
I don’t think it’s, it, it’s like a proactive thing. It’s a, once something happens, it’s your reaction to it, you know? Do you talk about it? Do you or dia dodge, do you pass the buck to make excuses?  The vulnerability thing is just owning it and also, you know, being okay with being honest. Like was the marketplace, was it you’re a dumb idea or was it, was it market factors? Was it the con and it, was it something else? Right. And I think leadership is that the catalyst for apps and vulnerability is the manner by which you deal with those outcomes. So yeah, that’s a, I think those are very, very different things.

Gene Hammett: [28:30]
What time is I really appreciate you being here? We’ve gone over my normal time, but you really are on to something. So wanted to let you run with it. I really appreciate you being vulnerable with us today of saying that he didn’t have all this figured out. And that you’re probably still figuring it out. Just like all of us are and I really appreciate you taking the time to share your wisdom here on the podcast.

Thomas Donohue: [28:55]
Happy to be here. Thank you so much.

Disclaimer: This transcript was created using YouTube’s translator tool and that may mean that some of the words, grammar, and typos come from a misinterpretation of the video.


454 GTT Featuring Thomas Donohue



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